Brother from another father

Being a person who writes and teaches about family life, I have often wished we could know more about Jesus’ early years, particularly his relationship to Mary, Joseph, and his half-siblings. But we have virtually nothing about Jesus’ childhood, and little about his family relationships. Nothing can be reconstructed with certainty.

So bear with me as I use a little imagination to read between the lines.

As mentioned in the previous post, the general scholarly consensus is that the author of the letter of James is Jesus’ half-brother, who is mentioned only in passing in the Gospels (e.g., Matt 13:55; Mark 6:3). When I try to imagine Jesus’ relationship to James, however, a passage from the gospel of John always springs to mind:

After this Jesus traveled throughout Galilee. He didn’t want to travel in Judea, because the Jewish authorities wanted to kill him. When it was almost time for the Jewish Festival of Booths, Jesus’ brothers said to him, “Leave Galilee. Go to Judea so that your disciples can see the amazing works that you do. Those who want to be known publicly don’t do things secretly. Since you can do these things, show yourself to the world.” His brothers said this because even they didn’t believe in him. (John 7:1-5, CEB)

“After this” refers to the previous episode, in which some of Jesus’ would-be followers soured on him and walked away. To some extent, they were upset that his pronouncement that he was the “bread of life” didn’t mean a manna-like provision of free food. Jesus didn’t help matters by saying, “Sorry, I guess I wasn’t clear. Let me try again.” Rather, to them, his words became even more confusing and extreme; it’s as if Jesus was testing to see who was really on board. And in John’s gospel, the opposition to Jesus continues to build, miracle by miracle, until the religious establishment wants him dead.

Unlike the other gospel writers, John portrays Jesus as faithfully going to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage festivals. But here in John 7, he balks. His brothers — presumably, including James — seem to taunt him. Read the passage above and leave out the last sentence; then read it again with the last sentence. The meaning of their words shifts dramatically. They’re making fun of him, goading him.

And more importantly, they’re goading him to do something dangerous, perhaps even fatal.

Surely that tells us something about the relationship?

I didn’t grow up with brothers. But I know people who have tales to tell about the testosterone-fueled fights and other high-jinks that happen between boys. What did James think of Jesus as they were growing up? We’ll never know. What seems likely, however, was that James had no great love for his brother.

Imagine, then, the crucified and risen Jesus appearing to James. It was one thing for Jesus to appear, say, to Simon Peter, but another to appear to James, the one who didn’t believe, the one who dared Jesus to risk his life in Jerusalem. What would that conversation have been like?

It’s Paul who tells us that Jesus “appeared to James” (1 Cor 15:7). Clearly, this is not one of the two men named James who were part of the Twelve, because Jesus had already appeared to them earlier (vs. 5). Nor does it seem likely that Paul would be referring to some other James without explanation. He simply uses the name, unqualified, because everyone would know immediately who was meant: the brother of Jesus, the leader of the Jerusalem church.

. . .

Paul, of course, includes himself in the list of people to whom Jesus appeared. But he doesn’t say it with pride: “last of all, he appeared to me, as if I were born at the wrong time. I’m the least important of the apostles. I don’t deserve to be called an apostle, because I harassed God’s church” (1 Cor 15:8-9). And unlike the appearance to James, we do have the story of Jesus’ appearance to Paul (e.g., Acts 9:1-6).

Imagine the young, headstrong, self-righteous Saul of Tarsus, wanting to seize the followers of Jesus and see them put to death for heresy. Jesus stops him in his tracks on the road into Damascus and turns his life upside-down. In passages like 1 Corinthians 15, you can hear the regret: I thought I knew what was right. I thought I knew it all. But I was so wrong, murderously wrong. If not for the completely undeserved grace of God, where would I be?

Again, we know nothing of Jesus’ appearance to James. But somehow, I imagine a similar kind of regret, coupled with a grateful astonishment at the grace of God. It’s significant, I think, that in his letter James identifies himself not as “Jesus’ brother” but as “a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1).

That’s not the James we see in John 7. The resurrection has changed everything.

Is it any wonder, then, that James would expect to see a similar transformation in everyone to whom he writes?